The changing verb phrase in present-day British English

FTFs and matching corpus examples for the core modal auxiliaries

If you have arrived at this page and are not sure what an FTF is and what it can be used for, you might find it useful to read more about them on our FTFs page before reading this page.

The Core Modals

The items tagged as modal auxiliaries in DCPSE are can/could, will/would, shall/should, may/might, and must (with the paired items indicating present and past tense counterparts). The items ought (to), need (to), and dare (to) are tagged in the corpus as semi-auxiliaries.

Single-node FTF searches

Instances of the modals can be found using the single-node FTF shown in Figure 1. Figure 2 shows a matching tree structure from the corpus, and further examples are listed below, with the matching modals marked in bold. (In the examples, a short pause is indicated by '<,>' and a longer pause by '<,,>'.)

Figure 1. FTF to find instances of modal auxiliaries.

Figure 2. Example from DCPSE retrieved using the FTF in Figure 1: You could just put them down there.


<DCPSE:DI-B61 #0125:2:B> I really can't afford to pay this

<DCPSE:DI-B90 #0198:1:A> And it may be old technology as well mayn't it

<DCPSE:DI-E09 #0171:1:B> And I opened my mouth and nothing would come out <,>

<DCPSE:DL-D04 #0138:1:C> <,> and don't go in for something <,> which might mean a compromise <,> but do by all means see <,> that the opposition is kept properly informed as they should be <,> of defence measures for the country <,,>

<DCPSE:DL-F02 #0345:1:b> yes I certainly think even George Best couldn't expect to score from <,> forty yards or so there <,>

Particular modal auxiliaries can be found by adding lexical content to the FTF shown in Figure 1. For example, Figure 3 shows an FTF to search for will, including truncated and negative forms ('ll, won't). This search will exclude, for example, instances of will as a noun (as in She has changed her will), which would be retrieved by a purely lexical search. Figure 4 shows a corpus example which matches the search in Figure 3, while further examples are listed below.

Figure 3. FTF to find instances of the forms will, 'll and won't occurring as modal auxiliaries.

Figure 4. Example from DCPSE retrieved using the FTF in Figure 3: and I'll then start again.


<DCPSE:DI-A01 #0021:1:B> I won't be a second Richard

<DCPSE:DI-C10 #0177:3:A> I 'll phone you back later on with the full final confirmation that Dave 's going to be there and everything

<DCPSE:DL-C02 #0666:11:B> yes <,> and it will be lovely to see you <,> and Alicia and Steve

<DCPSE:DL-D06 #0018:1:C> <,,> will you sign it <,,>

<DCPSE:DL-J02 #0157:1:A> you 'll find at the same time <,> this sense <,> of mobility <,> and mutability as they called it <,> as a recurrent feature <,> in the literature as well <,,>

Structural FTF searches

More complex FTFs can be used to search for modal auxiliaries which occur in particular structural patterns. The FTF in Figure 5 finds instances where a modal auxiliary functions as an 'interrogative operator' (labelled 'INTOP'), and is immediately followed by a subject and a VP. (The second node will match units analysed in the corpus as either 'subject', labelled 'SU', or 'provisional subject', labelled 'PRSU'. The label 'PRSU' is used for instances of it which 'anticipate' a clause in an extraposition structure, as in uhm would it be possible for Professor Worth to sign a cheque at some time today (<DCPSE:DL-C03 #0402:9:A>).) A tree structure matching the FTF in Figure 5 is shown in Figure 6, and further corpus examples follow.

Figure 5. FTF to find instances of the interrogative pattern modal + subject + VP.

Figure 6. Example from DCPSE retrieved using the FTF in Figure 5: How can I help you.


<DCPSE:DI-H01 #0086:1:A> Could you explain why it 's not until the twelfth of January nineteen eighty-eight that you 're signing forms to A S Consultants saying that you want to borrow money <,,>

<DCPSE:DI-H02 #0092:1:A> Well may I put it in a different way

<DCPSE:DL-B08 #0195:1:A> so <,> are you going to leave him a message or shall I say something

<DCPSE:DL-B27 #0213:1:B> where would you have it in the house <,,>

<DCPSE:DL-E01 #0258:2:B> should he purchase a large amount today <,,> and then nothing for a very long period <,> or should he purchase small amounts <,,> at regular intervals

The FTF in Figure 7 finds instances of modal auxiliaries occurring in tag questions (reduced interrogative clauses which attach to a preceding clause). Below this are a matching tree structure (Figure 8) and further matching examples.

Figure 7. FTF to find instances of modal auxiliaries in tag questions.

Figure 8. Example from DCPSE retrieved using the FTF in Figure 7: Can't see any can you.


<DCPSE:DI-A01 #0051:1:A> Let 's stop for the moment shall we

<DCPSE:DI-B15 #0517:1:B> but he must have thought it an eventuality mustn't he

<DCPSE:DI-D07 #0040:1:A> But Paddy it would be compatible would it not with the U N resolutions <,> for Saddam to remain in power and for a lot of his military and nuclear and chemical capacity to remain intact

<DCPSE:DL-B26 #0404:1:A> yes but there again <,> it would seem a bit odd wouldn't it sending bottles of <,> Orangeade <,,>

<DCPSE:DL-B28 #0375:1:A> you could have Christmas cake for brunch couldn't you <,,>

FTFs can also be constructed to search for VPs containing more than one auxiliary verb. Figure 9 shows an FTF which finds VPs where a modal auxiliary is immediately followed by a progressive auxiliary and a main verb. Figure 10 shows a matching tree structure, and further sentence examples follow.

Figure 9. FTF to find instances of the VP pattern modal + progressive + main verb.

Figure 10. Example from DCPSE retrieved using the FTF in Figure 9: You'll be resigning.


<DCPSE:DI-B28 #0090:1:B> Well she might be coming to Clare 's party

<DCPSE:DI-D15 #0089:1:D> I think part of the uh activity that we should be pressing for is greater Arab development of a security system in their part of the world where this danger is obviously most evident to them where they are afraid for their security

<DCPSE:DL-A01 #0518:2:A> but <,,> I 'd have a few months before October and <,,> well I 'd be devoting my full time to doing English instead of to <,,> doing a job <unclear-syllable>

<DCPSE:DL-B03 #0383:1:A> I mean I you know I say I think they made up their minds before they started <,> but I may be being a bit cynical about it <,,> uh

<DCPSE:DL-J05 #0203:1:A> but a fortnight hence <,> Mr Heath will be disporting himself at the Paris summit <,,>

The FTF in Figure 9 shows a structure where the nodes within the VP (modal auxiliary, progressive auxiliary, and main verb) occur in immediate sequence with no intervening material. It is also possible to choose settings which allow for intervening material such as adverb phrases. This can be done by simply clicking on a button to change the setting from 'next child: immediately after' to 'next child: after'. It is then possible to retrieve examples like the following, where the intervening material is underlined. (Note that this will find examples, like the third one below, where the perfect auxiliary have also occurs within the VP.)


<DCPSE:DI-B28 #0251:1:A> This week she 's doing uh she 's into doing dairy and pigs <,> so if she does come tonight she 'll probably be stinking of pigs

<DCPSE:DL-D04 #0315:1:C> and they will therefore be paying for their dentures

<DCPSE:DL-F03 #0050:1:B> and the young man who should have been boxing in this arena tonight <,> Joe Erskine

<DCPSE:DL-F06 #0279:2:C> and then <,,> they will be proudly taking their places in the Queen 's procession <,> Mr and Mrs Peter Phillips <,,>

A summary of findings on the core modal auxiliaries is available here.

This page last modified 12 June, 2013 by Survey Web Administrator.